Quadrant Music

From the Trenches, as a Music Teacher

Twelve beaming young faces smiled at me from the faded photograph, circa 1985. I had found the picture lying forlornly on a shelf next to a trumpet that had turned a tarnished brown over the years. I had just begun teaching music in a small, remote New South Wales government central school. The children from that still moment in time, many now possibly grandparents, had been the members of the school’s orchestra and brass band.

Upon my arrival, the principal showed me the music classroom and resource cupboard. Before leaving me alone, he remarked that there was a storage room at the back of the school where there might be extra music supplies, waving in its general direction. I found the building, isolated from the rest of the school, and in one of its dusty rooms, lit by a dim bulb, I discovered an old photo resting alongside a tattered sheet of paper that read: “Order of Service for Australia Day: Waltzing Matilda, Advance Australia Fair, Land of Hope and Glory”. Evidently, the school band had played an important role in that rural community.

Almost half a century ago, music had been taken seriously at this Australian school in the middle of nowhere. Moreover, learning to play these instruments would have involved persistence and dedication from both performers and their qualified teacher. Students would have needed to learn correct playing techniques, basic notation, interpretation of dynamics and expression markings, the difference between transposing and non-transposing instruments, scales, keys and much more.

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The instruments from the photo were probably those surrounding me at that moment. Sadly though, the brass ones had seen better days, the violins had strings missing, at some point a hole had been punched into one of them, and the cello’s bridge had been broken off. What had happened?

I was still a schoolboy in 1985. My Catholic school, like the government one I was standing in, was unimpressive. Most of us boys were working-class, and yet, we had an orchestral ensemble, albeit a small one. Quality music was not just the domain of wealthy, elite, selective or independent schools.

Richard Gill, the late Australian conductor and music educator, described the state of modern school music education in the country in the early twenty-first century as “‘a national disgrace’”. I can confirm this assessment to some extent. Of course, I cannot claim to speak for all music teachers, and there are certainly schools where music is still highly valued and excellence in performance in a range of musical styles is pursued and generously supported. In New South Wales, for example, there are several performing-arts high schools, and some independent schools have a range of orchestras, choral ensembles and multiple students studying instruments to a very high level of competence.

My concern, however, is with the general state of music teaching in schools across the board in Australia, based on my experience of teaching the subject in public and Catholic schools over the past decade or so.

Three areas cause me to despair. First, students are no longer exposed to the riches of Western art music (or “classical music”), let alone led to think about why it is important to do so. This needs to be rectified.

Music has been performed in every culture throughout human history. However, as the philosopher Roger Scruton argues, the practice of designating and closing off spaces from the outside to listen to music, in silence, with a common purpose in mind, whether for praise, worship or performance, is unique to Western civilisation. Whether these spaces be medieval monasteries, gothic cathedrals, humble parish churches in cities or the countryside, concert halls in the time of Mozart or in the opera halls and music theatres of today, the history of Western music is very much the story of a culture of listening.

I believe that my task is to teach the youth the art of listening once more, through exposure to the masterpieces of Western art music. To paraphrase a line from the Bible, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be.” I am like an archaeological explorer, digging up buried treasures and revealing their beauty to students. I believe this endeavour to be vital, for it is an act of remembering our culture.

So, when I recently began teaching music to secondary students in Years 7 to 10, in a small Christian school in Sydney, I decided to introduce the works of the great composers, such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, to their young ears. This would have been entirely new to many of them, as today’s young people have only been exposed to the products of our debased popular culture.

I began my first term with a historical survey of traditional Western music with my Year 7 and Year 8 classes. I played an Ambrosian chant, Angelorum Laus: Gloria in Excelsis Deo, Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes, Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, J.S. Bach’s Fugue in G Minor, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Beethoven’s Sixth and Ninth symphonies, and then finally Chopin’s sublime Op. 9, No. 2.

I expected most students to be uninterested by these pieces. I assumed they would judge them as “old people’s music” and therefore irrelevant. As well, today’s youth comprise the TikTok generation, and most lack the ability to listen to anything longer than a six-second video. The young person of today does not inhabit a culture of listening; most people in our society hear music as background noise. Very little that is played in our public spaces is worth listening to with attention and appreciation.

So, I was not surprised to hear a few grumbles. I was, after all, giving them the aural equivalent of full à la carte dining when their musical diet had consisted, in the main, of pop and rap music. The latter, particularly, is an ugly genre, and a talentless art.

I laid down strict rules whilst I played these masterpieces. The students were to simply listen. There was to be no talking, no tapping of pens, no turning around, and no requesting of bathroom breaks. Setting these standards led to impressive results. I eventually saw eyes widening and smiles appearing, hearing occasional gasps of “Wow!” and “What’s that?” Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and the legendary Ninth do that for first-time listeners, if they truly listen!

I then guided the students through aural exercises. I played excerpts of the assigned musical passages and isolated the various musical parameters—including tone colour, rhythm, pitch, duration, texture, structure and dynamics—found in them. My students copied down the observations I had made. In a matter of weeks, they had progressed from completing these aural analyses with me to independently analysing their own excerpts, with reasonable success. I also tasked them with copying out by hand the musical passages they were studying, resurrecting an old method for teaching composition and orchestration.

The following term, I took my classes on an in-depth discovery of Bach’s works. Respighi’s magnificent orchestration of the C minor Passacaglia and Fugue was the focus of study. I set my students a research task in which they excavated Bach’s biography and career as composer and church organist. Then, I provided them with a list of his works to listen to, and had them make written observations about the musical parameters they heard.

I do not know how the schoolboys in my aforementioned photo were taught music theory and appreciation, but I would like to believe that their education was similar to the way in which I am teaching my students.

I must provide a significant caveat which leads me to a second issue. The school where I currently teach is small, private and quite strict, with clear consequences for student misbehaviour. I could not run these lessons in a government or even a Catholic school today, due to the meltdown of disciplinary standards which makes it impossible for teachers to teach and for students who want to learn.

There have always been badly-behaved students, of course, but today’s delinquents, possessed by an overwhelming narcissism and self-entitlement, know that no serious consequences will ever result from their misbehaviour. Needless to say, this is not a problem confined to music classes. The enormous behavioural problems in Australian schools are well documented. My experiences support the recent study that placed Australia near the bottom of a list of the world’s worst-behaved school students. Some examples will demonstrate my point.

At most schools, I have run my music classes practically, as any theory lessons that I tried inevitably ended up with students either throwing objects, shouting, calling out, and swearing at each other or at me, should I tell them to settle down. In one Year 10 elective music class, I had set a written task on harmonic progressions. A girl decided instead to get up and play the drums just because she wanted to. I told her to cease her disruption, show some consideration to her classmates and return to her work. She told me that she wished she had a gun so that she could shoot me in the face. The only “punishment” that the school executive gave her was a detention, although she was moved to a different class for the remainder of the year. She was not required to apologise.

At another school, I attempted to teach simple notation to a Year 8 class. One young fellow decided that he would prefer to retrieve a large packet of chips from his backpack, open them and throw them directly into the blades of a ceiling fan running at full speed. Shrapnel flew across the classroom. I kept him in at lunchtime to pick up his debris by hand.

Disciplining a student can land the teacher in hot water. Due to legislative changes in 2019, the New South Wales Office of the Children’s Guardian has become the Big Brother behind a modern-day, Stasi-style operation. Today, an extensive range of complaints about teachers, from either students, other teachers or school principals, are treated as worthy of a formal investigation, and teachers can find themselves being called into a meeting with a child protection officer or the principal to explain themselves over the most trivial of complaints. I myself have been the subject of unsubstantiated allegations made by a newly installed female principal in a Catholic school. The entire process was psychologically and emotionally tortuous.

In this Orwellian predicament, teachers “under investigation” are automatically assumed to be perpetrators. It matters not at all whether the complaints are misconstrued, or wrong, or made from spite. Instead, the teacher must prove their innocence to managerial lackeys, themselves afforded semi-judicial powers at the whim of a school’s government. I know of teachers who have seriously contemplated suicide because of this injustice. I do not think it will be long before someone does commit suicide over this gruelling, inquisitorial system. And people wonder why teachers are leaving the profession.

Thus, much safer just to send students to a corner of a music room and give them practical lessons—even though doing so is to the extreme detriment of their musical education.

Finally, I must write about the shortage of qualified music teachers, especially as such pertains to the teaching of Higher School Certificate (HSC) classroom music. There are three music courses that senior students may undertake for their final exams: HSC Music 1, HSC Music 2 and Extension HSC Music. The latter two have a greater emphasis on art music than HSC 1 does; the expectations for entrance are higher, with students expected to be able to play an instrument to at least a Grade 6 AMEB standard.

HSC Music 1 has a more contemporary focus and reaffirms the content that students were supposedly taught between Years 7 and 10, but to a greater extent. I write supposedly because it implies that students had learned that content between Years 7 and 10. In my experience, that implication is baseless.

“Sir, what does the hashtag mean?” This question was addressed to me by a Year 11 student on my first day teaching HSC Music 1 in a government high school. After I explained to the girl that what she was looking at was called a sharp sign (#)—an F-sharp, as a matter of fact—I stated that the piece was in the key of G Major. “What do musicians mean when they refer to a piece of music as having a certain key?” I asked. Again, blank faces.

It soon became clear that these Year 11 students knew little about even the rudiments of music theory, despite wading through Years 7 and 8, in which music is a compulsory subject, and Years 9 and 10, in which it is elective. Incredibly, too, they had chosen to study music in senior school.

As for their performance skills, though some students played the guitar, they could only read tablature; they could not even read a chord chart. One girl played piano but needed the actual letter names written under the notation; because of this, she had taken a permanent marker to the piano’s keys.

Before even thinking about analysing music scores or teaching how to use expressive and dynamic markings in their composition assessments, I had to teach these students basic notation. This degree of woeful ignorance in an academic discipline would not be acceptable in other senior secondary subjects, such as mathematics or science.

One explanation that I can offer for this deplorable situation—though there certainly are more—is that schools are desperately lacking properly-trained music teachers. I know of at least two government schools and one Catholic school where students in Years 7 to 10 are taught by teachers for whom music is not their subject of training. At the last school where I taught, my predecessor had been trained in geography.

I wanted to write this article “from the trenches” to demonstrate some of the difficulties facing me and others as music teachers. Though the situation seems dire, I will conclude by saying that there is always hope—and it lies with the young.

I teach children from kindergarten to Year 10 now. My tiny musicians of five or six do not know how to hold a brass instrument or flute just yet, but I hope they will learn the art of listening and come to appreciate the beauty of Western music. Perhaps, in five or so years, a photo might be taken of them holding instruments, like the children in the 1985 photo. Today’s youth are the heirs to our Western civilisation. They deserve to learn about and partake in its riches. It is the role of teachers, particularly music teachers, to pass on the baton.

Luke Maffeo is a music teacher in New South Wales

13 thoughts on “From the Trenches, as a Music Teacher

  • Sindri says:

    When I was very young I wasn’t at all musical and just listened to pop songs on a scratchy radio. But my father used to play classical music on a not very good-quality quality gramophone, a clunky turntable plugged into an ancient radiogram. And one day a sparkling, infectious piece of music suddenly intruded into my consciousness: the first movement of Bach’s e-major violin concerto. A random sample on youtube:
    It was dazzling. That single piece, never tire of hearing it, led to a lifelong love of good music. Inspiring kids at school, at least some of them, could be as simple as letting them hear accessible, tuneful bits of classical music. But probably that doesn’t even happen, or if it does they’re overwhelmed by the rest of the dross they’re made to listen too.

  • Sindri says:

    I was going to add, QED from the dispiriting recent experiences of Luke.

  • Ceres says:

    A teacher who actually wants to “teach”. Kudos to you Luke for insisting on standards and hitting so many roadblocks from not only the unruly kids generation but lamentably, also administration. No wonder teachers are leaving in droves if they can afford to do so. I know I wouldn’t survive these days.

  • pgang says:

    Very interesting. As a parent of a fairly decent clarinettist I am consistently impressed by the motivation and self-discipline required to become ‘fairly decent’ at playing real music. I can’t imagine it being possible for students attending a public school unless it was achieved completely out of school, but that would be very de-motivating.
    Music was poorly taught at our school in the 80’s and was not taken seriously by anyone. For those of us learning instruments (in my case the piano, an instrument I simply don’t like), it was too facile, and for the rest I suspect it was too weird. It missed its target in both directions and was seen more as a mental break from more ‘serious’ classes.
    I am of the opinion that nothing should ever be given away. I’ve noticed that charity spawns contempt, and that it is much more beneficial to expect even a token payment in return for a handout. From that perspective, our system of ‘free education’ has resulted in schools being held in contempt by many of those on the receiving end.

  • padmmdpat says:

    In the last school I taught I once sat in on a middle school music lesson. A singing lesson. The pupils were taught a song and sang it. The teacher, who was dressed as 8f she had come from a hippy commune, sang in a style that reminded me of cats on a hot tin roof. And the kids sang the same – as if they all had rubber bands around their throats. What was worse, it was a Catholic school, at the two annual Masses, the choir sang the same way. Everything had to be sung like a pop song, I was told, to make it relevant to the kids. Who are the kids; who are the teachers?

  • Daffy says:

    I hate to talk ‘equipment’ but it has an impact. At my state high school we had a very talented Hungarian music teacher, she played us records of fine music using a tired old ‘stereogram’ (remember them?). I did like classical music, and as soon as I could afford it I bought the best HiFi system I could, ending the line with a pair of AR speakers in the lounge room and BWs in my bedroom. Then I heard music like I’d never heard it before.
    So msg to schools: get good gear. As high quality as possible. You students will eye-pop, as did my son when I took him to a friend’s place where the HIFi cost more than I’d spend on a car.

  • David Isaac says:

    It’s just not enough to try to ‘fix the schools.’ The reason Mr Maffeo has succeeded with his current class, aside from his own firmness, is the backing of the school and the parents. In a culturally impoverished area this sort of support will be very scarce. Threats of meaningful punishment might be used, if legislation were changed, but the real competition is between the hard work of acquiring listening and playing skills and the endless world of distraction carried in one’s pocket.

  • Tezza says:

    Excellent essay, Luke. More power to your arm, or baton, or whatever.
    It’s sad that our taxes now pay for two ABC classical music networks (one streaming only) managed by people who seem embarrassed by their audience. They strive endlessly to improve our political views, dumb down their announcing crew with diversity hires, but make no specific effort to introduce young people to the best music our culture has ever produced.

  • Stephen Due says:

    You should try attending a church service these days. What a nightmare! The ‘music’ is produced by microphone-caressing teenage narcicissists who would not otherwise be there except under duress. Churches used to be a major source of musical education for children as listeners. Now they and the rest of the congregation cannot tolerate music that is not coming through a loudspeaker. It must have beat. It must cause females under the age of 60 to wiggle their hips and raise their arms vertically in a gesture they imagine equates to ‘worship’. The great brass doors of the vast treasurehouse of Christian music, lovingly gathered over more than thousand years, and containing many of the great masterpieces of the Western canon, are permanently closed. Children cannot learn about music to which they are never exposed.

    • whitelaughter says:

      You are sadly correct. Fortunately there is some push back:

    • profspurr says:

      My forthcoming book (from Lutterworth, Cambridge), “Language in the Liturgy: past, present and in the future”, deals with the totally deleterious effects of the microphone (and amplification) culture in worship and has a chapter devoted to music, arguing for the restoration of classical church music and chant. There are, of course, still several places where the great choral tradition is maintained at a very high level: in Sydney, for example, at Christ Church St. Laurence and St James’, King Street, and at St Mary’s Cathedral, but the general situation is bleak indeed.

      • Stephen Due says:

        I fully support the abolition of the microphone and the ghastly black speakers hanging from the ceiling and attached to the walls. Amplification systems are a curse in churches – buildings which usually have excellent acoustics. One of the major problems with them is the use of feedback speakers (for the ‘musicians,’ so that they can hear themselves). Often when I ask the players whether they can hear congregation singing the answer is ‘no’ – and that is only partly because of the feeble effort made from those sitting in the rows of padded seats that have replaced the old wooden pews. Partly for this reason, amplified music in the church is unsuitable for accompanying congregational singing. It is invariably far too loud, as the teenager in charge of the sound desk (another cursed piece of technology) thinks that the volume should mimic that of a nightclub. Often it could be measured using a seismometer. The human ear has ceased to function wherever live music is amplified, and has been replaced by a series of flashing lights on a console in a back room.
        I’ll be looking forward to reading your forthcoming book. It’s a relief to know one is not entirely alone in the dark world of modern church services. There are days when I am inclined to think that the abolition of music that has a beat might have been a better idea than it seemed all those centuries ago, when it was an innovation. But the abolition of electronics would be a good start.

        • profspurr says:

          Thanks Stephen. Many agree with us, but so eroded has any sense of what is decent and appropriate and – most importantly – worthy of worship has been so eroded for so long by the now aged promoters of liturgical ‘renewal’ (which, of course, has been a complete and utter failure) that turning the situation around seems well-nigh impossible.

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